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Normally a Contact Sport, Lobbying Goes Virtual

Lobbyists can't grab lawmakers outside of chambers and committee rooms anymore. They're doing their best to stay in the loop through calls and texts but complain the legislative process has become a lot less transparent.

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Legislators have left their capitol buildings during the pandemic, forcing lobbyists to reach out in virtual ways. (Photo: David Kidd)
David Kidd
A Minneapolis-based company called Wilderness Inquiry has been leading kids on educational recreation trips for more than 40 years. The company wants children who have been missing school to receive credit for the experiences.  

Despite the current circumstances — or maybe because of them — the idea has resonated with a bipartisan group of lawmakers looking for ways to keep kids engaged with learning. “People are excited about it,” says Nancy Hylden, who lobbies for Wilderness Inquiry. “There are a lot of kids who are at risk of not doing well and we have to find creative ways of keeping them up to speed, not just making it the chore of doing worksheets.”

Getting lawmakers to sign on to a bill to create a pilot program has been a challenge, however. Not because of any opposition, but due to the physical limitations of lobbying right now.

In Minnesota, legislation is processed on paper. Typically, Hylden would hand over a bill jacket for a sponsor to sign, then walk around the capitol collecting signatures from cosponsors before filing the bill at the clerk’s office. She can’t do any of that now. She’s not even allowed into the capitol, so she had to mail the bill jacket to Rep. Jim Davnie and count on him to handle the paperwork. 

With capitols closed to the public, the mechanics of lobbying have changed for everybody. Most legislatures are not in session. Those that are still meeting are only allowing in legislators, staff and members of the media. Legislators themselves are trying to keep their distance from one another. On Wednesday, the Kentucky House voted to approve a one-year state budget. Most members texted or emailed leadership to record their votes from outside the chamber or even outside the capitol.

Under the circumstances, it’s very hard for lobbyists to make their voices heard. The throngs of lobbyists and interested parties who normally hang around outside legislative chambers, hoping to buttonhole lawmakers, have disappeared. “I do think there’s some level of frustration about not being able to know in real time what the discussions are that are being held,” Hylden says.

Being barred from the building doesn’t mean lobbyists aren’t trying to make their case. 

“Text me. Call me on my cell. Email. Leave a Fb comment or message. Direct message me on Twitter,” Minnesota state Sen. Matt Little writes in an email, describing the flood of requests he’s seeing on his phone. “Send me a fax for Heaven’s sake. Do whatever it takes to get ahold of me.”

Legislators always have short attention spans, inundated with requests for “just five minutes” of their time. Now, their stress levels are amped up. In Minnesota, two legislators and Gov. Tim Walz have been quarantined.

It’s important for lobbyists to keep their requests short and on point. “Lawmakers are not only looking out for public policies, but their families,” says Elizabeth Emerson, past president of the Minnesota Government Relations Council. “Your tone and messaging are more critical than ever.”

Not Much Legislation Is Happening

In February, the Kansas Senate passed a bill that would require local governments to vote annually when they increase their overall property tax revenue, even if values are going up. It passed unanimously, but might have been a tough sell in the state House, due to objections raised by localities. 

But now the bill — along with several other property tax bills already passed by the Senate — might be dead. If a piece of legislation doesn’t deal directly with state revenues or health concerns, it’s simply not going to receive as much time or attention as it would during an ordinary year. “That’s a realistic possibility, that all the bills they had been working on are just lost for the year,” says Eric Stafford, vice president of government affairs at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

There are some scattered policy-oriented bills still getting a hearing. On Monday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed two bills that cut against transgender rights. One bars transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports, the other blocks transgender individuals from changing their birth certificates to reflect their gender identity.

Controversial pieces of legislation like that are scarce these days. Legislators are trying to meet as little as possible. When they do hold sessions, their focus is fixed on coronavirus response and shoring up rapidly sinking budgets. “Before, when it was business as usual, we were all slugging it out to advocate for clients with limited resources,” Emerson says. “There really isn’t a competition for those dollars anymore. It’s all going to be focused on COVID.”

Lobbyists have been spending a lot more of their time lately talking to clients. Especially for those representing membership and trade associations, there have been a lot of questions about what stay-at-home orders mean in terms of running a business.

The staff of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce spent all last week calling up each of its 1,000 members to find out what concerns they had. “It’s just an A to Z set of issues that are challenging people,” says Randy Zook, the chamber president. “We’re trying to work the problem every time and try to get in touch with the right people.”

Zook said he got a call from someone working in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning field. They didn’t know what protocols they should follow in terms of making house calls. Do they go to homes where people are sick? What sort of protective equipment do they wear? Should they go home and shower and change clothes after every appointment, or wash their hands and keep going?

Zook said he called the Arkansas surgeon general, who told him those specific questions hadn’t come up before, but connected him with the state expert on protocols. Like lobbyists in other states, Zook said he’s been impressed with the way state officials are working to keep the lines of communication open. “It’s amazing how responsive people are,” he says.

Transparency Has Fallen by the Wayside

If officials are responsive, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to find out what’s going on. Last month, Hawaii Gov. David Ige suspended state laws regarding public records and requirements that agencies meet in public.

Last week, the Minnesota Legislature passed a $330 million coronavirus response bill. It was passed quickly by the House and Senate, after days in which legislators crafted it in small groups to avoid reaching a quorum and having to make their meetings public. Normally, bills have to be posted 24 hours in advance, with amendments posted 12 hours in advance. That didn’t happen in this case.

Perennial concerns about lack of transparency in drafting legislation have naturally been heightened. “There’s a lot of legislation that’s passing in a very quick manner that may be addressing concerns, but the public has no way of knowing what is being said and done,” says Kelsey Johnson, a St. Paul lobbyist. “The difficulty for us is we’re hearing there’s multiple meetings occurring and no one is aware of who is hosting those meetings and what is being discussed.”

Lobbyists are trying to work the connections they have. They have to hope the legislators they have strong ties with are being kept in the loop. “The relationships you built before this time are kind of the relationships you have,” Emerson says. “It’s kind of difficult to build relationships over email.”

Lawmaking is usually a highly personal activity. Every state capitol is like a village, with people constantly colliding and supplicants seeking favors. Lobbyists who can’t talk in person with lawmakers now have to reach out remotely by phone, email and text.

No one knows what the process will end up looking like as the coronavirus crisis continues. The lack of transparency is understandable under the circumstances, Hylden says, but it has to be temporary.

“The government wasn’t set up to do Zoom meetings,” she says. “There’s risks with that. We’ve got to find ways to have a more public process.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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